Rare diseases affecting the immune system

Photo: Doctor wrapping young girl's arm with bandageIf you're healthy, have a strong immune system, and practice good hygiene and proper wound care, your chances of getting necrotizing fasciitis (“flesh-eating” bacteria) are extremely low.

Necrotizing fasciitis is a serious bacterial infection that spreads rapidly and destroys the body's soft tissue. Commonly called a "flesh-eating infection" by the media, this rare disease can be caused by more than one type of bacteria. These include group A Streptococcus (group A strep), Klebsiella, Clostridium, E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Aeromonas hydrophila, among others. Group A strep is considered the most common cause of necrotizing fasciitis.

Usually, infections from group A strep bacteria are generally mild or moderate and are easily treated. But sometimes toxins made by these bacteria destroy the tissue they infect, causing it to die. ("Necrotizing" means "causing the death of tissues.") Accurate diagnosis and prompt treatment with antibiotics through a vein and surgery are important.

Common sense and good wound care are the best ways to prevent a bacterial skin infection.

  • Keep draining or open wounds covered with clean, dry bandages until healed.
  • Don't delay first aid of even minor, non-infected wounds like blisters, scrapes or any break in the skin.
  • If you have an open wound or active infection, avoid common-use sites like whirlpools, hot tubs and swimming pools until infections are healed.
  • Wash hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand rub if washing is not possible.

Photo: Man's hand with intravenous tubeNecrotizing Fasciitis Causes

Most cases occur randomly and are not linked to similar infections in others. The most common way of getting necrotizing fasciitis is when the bacteria enter the body through a break in the skin, like a cut, scrape, burn, insect bite, or puncture wound. Most people who get necrotizing fasciitis have other health problems that may lower their body's ability to fight infection. Some of these conditions include diabetes, kidney disease, cancer, or other chronic health conditions that weaken the body's immune system.

If you're healthy, have a strong immune system, and practice good hygiene and proper wound care, your chances of getting necrotizing fasciitis are extremely low.

In cases of necrotizing fasciitis, bacteria spread rapidly once they enter the body. They infect flat layers of a membrane known as the fascia, connective bands of tissue that surround muscles, nerves, fat, and blood vessels. The infection also damages the tissues next to the fascia.

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